Thousands of children from around the world remain trapped in Syria facing an uncertain and dangerous future as the debate over what to do with these children rages. Among them are an estimated 100 children born to British IS members and many remain stuck in refugee camps, where they are being held away from the camps’ populations, in segregated areas with foreign women believed to be former Islamic State (IS) members.
Figures vary: while the Soufan Centre, a counter-terrorism research organisation based in the US, estimates that there are as at least 700 children born to foreign jihadis still in war torn Syria, Save the Children said it has found more than 2,500 children from 30 countries in three camps alone.
According to a 2018 report from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), at least 3,704 foreign-born children were taken to IS territory by their parents or carers, including 460 from France, at least 350 from Russia and almost 400 from Morocco. Several hundred of these children are known to have returned to their home countries since. A number are also likely to have died in IS territory.
Many of these children have been forced to witness horrific acts of violence which include executions and beheading and their current situation in the camps in northern Syria is particularly dire, Save the Children points out. For a start, because these children are held in isolation with other perceived former members of IS, they are often not able to get as much food and medical care as they need.
“All children with perceived and actual associations with IS are victims of the conflict and must be treated as such,” declared Kirsty McNeill of Save the Children UK.
The issue of the trapped children has been brought to the fore after a number of women came forward to say they wanted to return to their home countries, including the UK, US and France, so they could raise their children in peace. In response, the UK and US have barred two mothers from returning. In a high-profile case, Sajid Javid, the British home secretary, revoked the citizenship of Shamima Begum, mother of one-week-old Jarrah.
On 20 February, the International Observatory of Human Rights highlighted the case of three-year-old Salmaan, who is entitled to a British passport. Salmaan’s father Haroon was a British citizen who travelled to Syria to fight with militants and his mother Aisha is a Canadian citizen. Haroon was killed in 2016 and Aisha and Salmaan was last heard from over a month ago. Salmaan’s British grandparents, Ashfaq and Mahfooz Khurshid, are desperate to bring their grandson home to safety.
“It is imperative that foreign governments, including the UK, uphold their duty of care to their citizens and adopt a human rights-based approach to their repatriation and rehabilitation. Without this, there is an acute risk of continuation or even exacerbation of the cycle of jihadist violence, radicalism and instability for generations to come,” says Gina Vale, co-author of the ICSR study.
Yet very few foreign children have been repatriated so far. By July 2018, Britain had only seen the return of four children according to ICSR. While there are obstacles to bringing children back, like identification, governments across the world have been accused of stalling in order to avoid having to make difficult decisions and families, such as the Khurshids, face a battle to get their grandchildren, or nieces and nephews, home from Syria and Iraq.
In Russia, more than 100 children have already been brought home to family members, many at the request of parents locked in prisons. The last flight brought back 30 children, and Russia plans to bring back another 40 this month.
Tanya Lokshina, Human Rights Watch associate director for Europe and Central Asia, told Bloomberg at the start of February it is “the most active programme to return detainees from Iraq and Syria”.